Akatsuki no Yona (Yona of the Dawn)

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Describe the structure of this anime, and you’ll get a shounen. Add the genders of the characters, and it’ll read as if this anime tries to deconstruct both Shoujo and Shounen for some grand statement about anime, sexuality and the target audience. Watch it, and it’s just a simple story about collecting plot coupons in the shapes of handsome guys which all happen to be engaging characters. It’s odd how Yona opted for doing a simple adventure story when it could do so much more.

It’s not bad, just bizarre. Most anime – or stories in general – that aim for a simple, exciting adventures¬† have low aspirations. They aim for a bit of fun, some wacky designs and battles, a few dramatic mission statements and a big explosion to signal the climax. Yona has all the ingredients to uplift this formula to something serious, yet it’s content in basic storytelling. At least it has a good reason. As an example of adventure stories, Yona is fantastic.

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The first thing a storyteller must decide is what’s the meaning of his adventure. This meaning doesn’t have to be explored with all its philosophical layers and references to dead white European males. Rather, this meaning will serve as an emotional core, to make us care about what’s going on. We always care about things because they mean something, anything.

Yona starts with emotional hooks and never lets them go. A common mistake is turning your adventure into a set of obstacles to overcome using skills and badassery. Yona, instead, has a running theme connecting all these stages. What’s dominating is a specific type of coming of age. It’s not just about learning about the world outside, but realizing how different the bubble you were in is to the world.

What makes characters interesting and meaningful is what they do with their circumstances. Yona’s bubble doesn’t just burst. Rather, she doesn’t give up on her bubble but tries to reform it. In every place she goes to, she uses the lessons she grew up on – love, comfort, and softness – and bestows it upon the people. Her battle against the trafficking of women isn’t plain morality. Yona aims for a specific type of world, some kind of replica of what she used to live. Notice her treatment of the dragons. She never demands that they’ll join her moral crusade. She reacts in the same way her father did, she hopes they’ll join them of her own will. Her gang is designed like her father’s world, where everyone is nice to each other.

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As a female character, Yona is fascinating. On the surface, she’s a weak female character who needs her guys, weapons, and a shorter hair for validation. That’s because we’re so used to aggressive personalities. Even if our women aren’t warriors, we expect strong characters to shout and care nothing at all about others.

Yona may be feminine, but it is hardly a weakness. She has a worldview that guides her, that is uniquely hers. The actions are never convenient and her moral system isn’t a simple case of doing good. Beyond that, everyone actually relies on her. The source of meaning isn’t just a way of moving the plot. The dragons don’t join smoothly, and each views their situation differently. Nevertheless, Yona is the ultimate guide of the gang. The meaning of the journey, of remaking the world as a softer, more comfortable place to live comes from her.

Although she rarely takes active, aggressive action she always remains dominant. That’s because every conflict is an examination of her personality, and she changes. Everyone else just helps her with the technical details of getting food and scouting.

The anime also treats its antagonist well. Soo-won is a character of contrasts. His presentation is always a flip of what we before. It goes beyond the beginning, where he’s a smiling angel who turns out to be murderous. In two episodes, he’s the main character. We see how he runs the kingdom, what his views are of how it should be. It’s a shame the series is so short and doesn’t give him enough screen time. He’s a cold, calculated person who’s a fantastic actor. He also, when choosing a purpose, pursues it aggressively.

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An aggressive personality doesn’t necessarily translate to a cruel reign, but an efficient one. In a few instances, the anime is an excellent exploration of a benevolent monarchy. Although Soo-Won is cold, his aggressive pursuit brings him to a lot of victories. He manages to lift up a situation that King Il couldn’t, and without aggression he couldn’t do that. It’s a shame he has little screen time. The creators use the screen time to display both sides, but they never clarify the connection between them.

Each arc stands on its own, carry its own meanings, main characters and tones. The anime borders on experimental, with one arc flirting heavily with horror. The result is that despite having a structure of plot coupons, it never feels this way. Yona needs to collect all dragons to cash them in for End of Plot, but each tale of getting the coupon stands for itself. The stories are so different. One is about a comically religious village. Another is about an underground village living in constant fear. Another is about overthrowing the asshole ruler. Separate these stories from the big picture, and they stand on their own. A formulaic structure doesn’t matter so long as the parts are good, and this anime is a clear proof of this.

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That’s why although its ending is one of the worst in the style of ‘no ending’, it’s still great. Many complain about anime that don’t really end, but often they do conclude their small arc. Yona is one of the few that builds up to a big conflict and never gets to it. It doesn’t even use its final arc to conclude all the ideas that happened before. The anime doesn’t set itself up as an episode in a gigantic story – like, say, Attack on Titan – but a straightforward adventure where we expect the hero and the villain to meet at the end for some milk, cookies, philosophical discussions and an exchange of blows. It ends by collecting all the coupons and never cashing them in. Since everything that happened before is good enough, it doesn’t ruin the anime but it’s still disappointing.

The art style is delightlyfully shoujo. The eyes are quite big. Yona is feminine, with a red hair that’s not just red, but sore red. It’s the kind of red that you don’t wear to your workplace because it’s too attention-grabbing. The guys are also all handsome. While the designs are appealing, few are distinct. Yona is beautiful, but that’s expected from a shoujo anime that doesn’t think feminine is an insult. As for the other characters, only Soo-Won has an interesting design. His soft side is expressed in his long, bright hair and warm expression that has a long, rather than wide smile. Everyone else fits their characters, but Hak’s rugged look is typical dark short hair. Yun is another honorable mention. As an attempt to make a pretty boy, it’s excellent. We never see much of this handsome male look. We see male characters who are handsome, but not those whose looks is a major selling point.

Yona is a straightforward adventure anime. What it aims to do isn’t special, but what makes it special is how well it understands the adventure story. It manages to overcome a non-existent ending, and you can only do that by having separate arcs which still gel together, by having characters that breathe life to these arcs. Occasionally, it shuffles the pieces around but it’s more for entertainment effect rather than subversion. Still, if you want to experience pure storytelling, this is it.

3.5 dragons out of 5

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Theodore Dreiser – An American Tragedy

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“intermingled and furnished it in some nondescript manner which need hardly be described.”

I dare you to find a funnier joke in all of history of the world. Only Robert Jordan’s death can compete with this. Theodore Dreiser overwrites like no other, and he is telling us twice that something is nondescript and there shouldn’t be described. I don’t know whether it’s a moment of self-awareness, or whether it’s definitive proof there was no editor.

You better laugh, because An American Tragedy is a heavy novel. It’s heavy in every sense of the word. The book is long. The writing is dense, overwritten, everything is repeated and reptition is everywhere. The subject matter is the same, the nature of crime and ambition and other big topics about life. The psychology is just as deep, with Dreiser refusing to cast anyone as pure evil.

Dreiser does the impossible here. Authors write great books by sticking to principles of good writing. They each have their own unique spin, but you can draw general rules that these books have in common.

Dreiser breaks every conventional rule. The end of the novel is obvious from the title. The writing is the worst you can find. I can never say enough how Dreiser overwrites. Plenty of things get described and every thought in the characters’ heads is spelled out for us. Dreiser never shows but always tells. The novel is just one psychoanalysis of his characters, but he doesn’t even give us the privilege of letting us do the hard work. He shows both the evidence and the conclusions.

Good thing that Dreiser can back it up. The reason all the overwriting is forgiven is because Dreiser has too much to say. By trying to show the story rather than tell it, he would have lost of the information he wanted to convey.

Is it the easy way out? I don’t know. Showing this story means writing a lot less. By telling everything, Dreiser has to grapple with his ideas head-on. An American Tragedy may be a busy novel, but it has clear themes you can follow. It also has an abundance of them.

It feels so epic, yet the story itself is simple. You could probably tell it in 5 pages. The thing is, what makes literature remarkable is less what happens. The meaning behind it counts far more. That’s why we can tell stories of rise and fall until the heat death of the universe and we don’t get sick of them because they each have different themes.

I doubt many of them can hold a candle to Dreisser’s work. He was blessed with the unique ability of reading minds. That’s the only way to explain the characters. They feel real because they’re each understandable. There’s a murderer, but there’s no villain. By the end, the reverend who constantly begs for mercy isn’t just the character but Dreisser itself.

Weren’t oracles always portrayed as being greatly affected by their visions? This novel shows how understanding the human mind can affect a person. Dreisser doesn’t just overwrite. He wrestles with the tragedy of the human condition. I know this is a huge word and it makes me sound pretentious (and a white straight male). How else to describe this novel, though?

We puny humans are always in conflict. All of us think we’re right. The man who can cure cancer, the soldier who kills a terrorist, Ian Watkins abusing kids, the person who prevents suicides and the suicidal person all sure that their worldview is current. They also all come in conflict. Now, when you only thing your side is right it’s easy. Just keep attacking the other side no matter what. What do you do when you can understand everyone? What do you do when you see both the selfishness of heroics and altruism of it? What do you do when you understand a cruel murderer but can’t ignore the pleas of the victims?

These questions always pop in the novel. American Tragedy is confusing not because of silly things, like ‘it could mean anything’ or because you can’t understand what’s going on. It’s confusing like real life is confusing. There are no shades of grey. It’s one whole kaleidoscope. Dreiser has some answers. Clyde is definitely guilty, but beyond that Dreiser leaves us with questions and keeps us wondering.

While it’s a tragic novel, it’s not a depressing one. A novel that tries hard to understand everyone isn’t a product of a nihilist. It’s a product of someone who loves humanity. Love is a problem like it is a blessing. Like Clyde, Dreiser is trapped between people because of his love for them. Unlike Clyde, Dreiser is trapped between more than just two women and he’s unsure who to choose. Seeing how much compassion he writes this novel with, it only inspires me to be as compassionate to others like Dreiser is to his characters.

Be careful when starting this. The novel takes time to read. The langauge is complex. The paragraphs are long and the plot is very slow. It also took me about 90 pages before I got used to the writing style. It might be inaccessible, but it’s well worth the effort. The novel wouldn’t work if it wasn’t so clogged with Dreiser’s own thoughts on his characters. That’s how he reveals to us all the grey areas in the novel.

As inaccessible and hard to read as it is, I’d recommend to everyone. If literature is about enriching our understanding of ourselves, then this is definitive literature. It loses a few points for dragging, but as difficult as it is I know I will return to it someday.

5 murders out of 5

High School DXD

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There’s an art to the ecchi genre. Sexual appeal may not require brains to react to, but it requires skill. Not everyone can be a stripper or a sexy dancer even if you have the right body. A good ecchi show would know symbolism and psychology aren’t part of the genre. It would know that it uses sexuality and energy to tell a fun, ridiculous story. High School DXD knows this, but doesn’t work on it.

The characters embodies the strengths and the weaknesses. Rias is worth all the hype and posters they made. You need more than big breasts to make a sexy character. Rias is sexy and not just because of her figure (which isn’t easy to design. See also: Divergence Eve). It’s also little touches like the hair, which is deliberately red. Red is both the color that attracts the most attention. Rias isn’t just meant to be pretty but she symbolizes sexuality.

Her posture, behavior and personality also help express this idea. She’s not a caricature nymphoniac who’ll be a sex slave for our main character. Rather, she’s comfortable in her sexuality. She doesn’t mind being seen naked. She’s in a position of authority that gives her a lot of power but she’s not drunk with it. Power is sexy, but being able to control it is harder and sexier.

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She’s a charismatic, powerful presence that holds the series despite the fact everyone around her is barely half as interesting. What’s weird is that all the failures are females. They’re supposed to be just as attractive as Rias, but they’re dull.

It’s hard to see something in them beyond archetypes. Rias was an embodiment of an idea. Everyone else is a dull archetype. Asia is the complete opposite of Rias, which is something. It’s not used to its advantage. The contrast between the two never appears. We know she’s a nice girl but we only know it. We rarely see it happen. Akeno has no personality whatsoever and Koneco is a quiet loli, which was always a terrible idea and doesn’t improve here.

The designers do have talent. Later in the series a rival group is introduced, and they all have more imaginative designs than the main characters’. It’s almost as if they had two different designers, and the less creative one punished the other. Things in the rivalry team include spiral twintails, X-shaped twintails, a bikini armor and a masked figure. Even at their worst, there’s more spark to their design. Why do the main characters get the generic long hair of Akeno?

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The male characters are actually more entertaining this time. They’re often mindless perverts or boring good guys in such shows. Issei is a combination of both, but it’s one that works. He has these attributes not because it’s convenient to the story but because they can create a personality out of it. Issei becomes both an overblown moral hero who’s just as selfish and horny as the person he goes against.

There’s irony there. It flips the story where two people beat up each other because they disagree and somehow their strength proves their idea right. I wish the irony was more developed though. Issei knows he’d like to be that asshole he’s fighting, the guy with the harem. The anime doesn’t take a step back to laugh at this, at least not enough.

The problem is that it’s not enough to just know you’re making an ecchi series. You still need direction, you need to aim somewhere. What prevents the series from becoming really enjoyable is its lack of direction. Is this about how stupid but kind of cute we are in high school when hormones drive us crazy? Or is this about a hero that’s going to push himself over the edge for a girl because he’s hungry for sex?

If the series would’ve chosen to alternate between the two, it would’ve been fine. Instead, it jumps back and forth between the two. It only gets focused at the end, where it sticks to the epic fight and nothing else. At least it’s victorious there. The fight is well-animated and has a pretty enough scenery to make it exciting. The exaggeration of the characters is also believable enough to make the final conflict feel epic enough.
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The fantasy element is one of the good parts. It’s a cute spin on the Devil/Angel dichotomy that doesn’t pretend to be profound. The idea of devils doing services for people is rife for potential comedy. They play around with it a little and then abandon it. The epic battle was fine, but it was more fun to see Issei trying to do things and being a loser. It’s an opportunity to create odd side-characters who can have their ideas summed up in one episode. There are more seasons and I hope they play around with this more.

Now comes the fatal part, where humiliation is passed off for sexiness. I don’t mind the camera finding its way to changing rooms or how clothes get ripped off during battles in sexy ways. What I don’t understand is, is it necessary to have the characters strip others naked against their will for our enjoyment? It’s not sexy and it’s not humorous.

High School DXD knows what it isn’t, but it also doesn’t know what it is. There is heart here. These people really wanted to make an anime that will capture the fun spirit Ecchi can have, but they didn’t know how. Maybe the next seasons have more focus. I hope so. Rias is too much of a fun character and Issei is a rare Harem protagonist who actually contributes to the story. It’s a fun show, but as crazy as it sounds I think we can do more with Ecchi.

2.5 devils out of 5